Salted Butter vs Unsalted Butter in Baking

Salted vs Unsalted Butter in Baking on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Here’s a common question in the kitchen. What’s the deal with salted and unsalted butter in baking? Does it really make a difference? Or is the recipe just being annoyingly picky? Ugh, baking.

Yes and yes I’m sorry.

Butter is our best friend in the kitchen, especially when it comes to pie crusts and cookies and cakes and cupcakes and poundcake and oh yeah, every other thing we have ever baked! Butter’s so common in our recipes that we often take this simple ingredient for granted. But the truth is that butter is just as fussy as the next baking ingredient. If your butter is too warm, forget about creaming it and your “fluffy cake” will end up dense, lifeless, and flat. Too cold and you’ll wind up with harsh chunks of butter in your otherwise pristine cake batter. Not only with regards to temperature, butter is a massive question mark when it comes to salt content. And that’s exactly what we’re going to discuss today.

Baking basics series, we’re back!

Salted vs Unsalted Butter in Baking on sallysbakingaddiction.com

It’s quite ironic that a recipe can call for both unsalted (sweet) butter and salt. Why not just use salted butter? 2 or 3 reasons, actually.

1. The amount of salt in salted butter varies between brands.

You know baking is all about science, but it’s all about control as well. When you use unsalted butter in a recipe, you can control the exact amount of salt in your baked good. When you use salted butter, you have no idea how much salt you’re using because it varies between each brand you see at the store. Chowhound tells us the exact amount of salt in popular brands and some are double the amount of others! And this doesn’t even include store-brand butter, so who the heck knows how much salt is hiding in those. The flavor in your baked good is completely compromised, especially if butter is the main flavor– think poundcake, sugar cookies, pie crust etc. It doesn’t matter as much in cooking since you can taste as you go, but it’s crucial to control the salt in baked recipes. Pair this with the added salt in your recipe and you’ll wind up with super salty poundcake.

2. Unsalted butter is fresher.

Salt is a preservative and therefore, salted butter has a longer shelf life than unsalted butter. We’re talking 3-4 months of shelf time. For fresher butter, reach for the unsalted variety. (Or heck! Make your own!) However, some brands add “natural flavor” to unsalted butter, which extends its shelf life (not quite as long as salt). This is usually lactic acid, which also helps regulate its pH.

3. Salted butter has a higher water content than unsalted butter.

I heard this one at one of my cooking demos, but cannot attest its truth. The reason this would be a negative is because excess water could impact the way gluten develops resulting in a tougher textured baked good. However, I never notice a texture difference in my baked goods– just a taste difference. But something to keep in mind. Have you heard about this before?

Salted vs Unsalted Butter in Baking on sallysbakingaddiction.com

How to Substitute Salted Butter and Unsalted Butter

It’s best to use the type of butter called for in a recipe. But here’s a general rule: reduce or add 1/4 teaspoon of salt per 1/2 cup (1/4 lb; 115g; 1 stick) of butter.

Explained: If you come across a recipe that calls for salted butter and all you have is unsalted butter, use unsalted butter and increase the salt in the recipe by 1/4 teaspoon for every 1/2 cup of butter. So if a recipe calls for 1 cup of salted butter and 1/4 teaspoon of salt, you will use 1 cup of unsalted butter and 3/4 teaspoon of salt. And if you come across a recipe that calls for unsalted butter and all you have is salted butter, simply decrease the salt in the recipe by the same ratio above– 1/4 teaspoon of salt per 1/2 cup of butter. If you’re making a recipe that calls for 1/2 cup of unsalted butter and 1/2 teaspoon of salt, you can use 1/2 cup of salted butter and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Get it?

Mom’s Butter Confession

My mother uses salted butter in all of her baking and cooking. Unapologetically! She loves salty sweet foods, so if you are currently doing the same OR love a bit of salty with your sweet– go for it.

Could baking BE any more confusing? (cue Chandler Bing)

Further reading:

Also: new post on my photography blog today!

92 Comments

  1. Haha – totally read that in Chandler’s voice (I’m currently re-watching the entire series so it’s basically my life atm)! Salted butter isn’t quite so common in Germany so I never have any issues with it (I just increase the amount of salt like you suggested if the recipe calls for salted) but it’s nice to learn about the differences anyways! 🙂

  2. This is very informative. Totally agree that unsalted is healthier but I personally like salted 😉 . Its tastier :D. Making unsalted butter at home is easy. I have tried it once. But its a bit messy. Leaves the grinder hard to clean.

    1. The healthier spin has me a bit confused since my Dr. told me I am salt deficient! I know, it’s because I eat a super healthy diet with all fresh food and he encouraged me to eat more salt! The one person in America. But this post is fascinating.

      My mom is the opposite of yours Sally, she is always telling me and using herself unsalted butter ~ for the reasons you state and because you can control the salt. I’m so lazy that I appreciate salted butter because I don’t want to bother adding it.

      But I didn’t realize unsalted butter was actually fresher! I’m sending mom this post for fun. 

      1. It’s all so interesting. And everyone has a different take on which to use. I love reading it!

  3. Great info! I always use salted butter and making sure not to add too much salt, by checking the ingredients information on the back of the butter to make sure how many grams of salt they have. So I can leave out the salt or just add a pinch more. I thought it was just about the salt, didn’t know the other reasons. SO great advice!

    Anyway, I’m making your crumble apple pie today! The pie crust is just the easiest to handle crust I’ve ever made! Perfect combination of ingredients, Thanks for the thorough explanation.

    Greetings from Norway 🙂

  4. I think it’s awesome that your mom uses salted butter. I’ve noticed that you use it more than other people, too. Hey, why not? It’s there and it’s delicious. Could anything BE more fun? 🙂

  5. This is SO helpful. I’ve always had unsalted butter on hand, but I didn’t know the difference between the two. Thank you for clearing things up as usual!! 🙂

  6. Thanks for this awesome breakdown Sally! I love getting your insights into what’s going on inside my cookies! Thanks for taking the time, Girl!

  7. Loved your Baking Basics column today!  Would love to see a future column explaining all the different kinds of chocolate and what they do in a recipe.  Special emphasis on the bars that have a % on the label — 60% cocoa, 40% cocoa, etc.  I find this very confusing — can any substitutions be made?
    Also, I would love to see an explanation of all the different salts — sea salt, kosher salt, table salt, etc.  That list could go on forever.
    I so love your column, Sally.  Keep up the good work!

  8. Reading your baking basics posts makes me want to go to culinary school and take a baking/cooking science class. I wasn’t the biggest fan of science in school, but I feel like I’d be able to make an exception if food was involved 😀

  9. Interesting. I was just talking about this with my dad. My mom only buys salted (she says unsalted tastes like unflavored grease. YUM.), so when I was making molten lava cakes for Father’s Day, I added salted butter, and omitted the salt in the cakes, themselves. Turned out fine to me. 🙂

  10. I just moved to a different province and city and have been trying to get used to the different products in the stores. For some odd reason I can barely find unsalted butter when I go to the store and if I do it’s way more expensive. I made banana muffins the other day and all I had was salted butter on hand so I reduced my salt in the recipe but boy could I taste the extra salt. yuck!

  11. Great post, Sally! I always have unsalted butter in our fridge and always use it in baking. Loves me some butter, that’s for sure! Hubby and I started a couple months ago watching Friends from the beginning. Never gets old. So funny, isn’t it 🙂 ?

  12. Hi Sally, love your advice and your recipes!  I knew about the salt content, but not the other info!  I have an unrelated question…  Going to making that gorgeous blueberry pie and wondered if I can use butter flavored shortening or no??  Thank you☺️

  13. “Ugh, baking.” Doesn’t that just say it all? Lol. It’s an intense love/confusion/brow-wrinkling/joy rollercoaster with baking (at least in my kitchen!). Lol.
    And on baking, “it’s all about control as well. ” So much YES. Basically one of the best and most frustrating parts of baking. You feel great when you’re nailing in (i.e. in control) and totally flustered when you don’t. Plus, was it because of that little ridge on the baking soda box that messed up your entire measurement, and thus your entire recipe?? Haha.
    That’s why I turn to you, Sally, for your expertise and patient explanations. And for Chanandler Bong cues, of course. 😉 Can’t wait to see what else you teach us about next! xo

  14. Hi. I’m with Mom. I also use salted butter unapologetically, and I don’t add salt. To me, the unsalted butter has a horrible aftertaste that comes right through in anything it’s in. I can tell immediately when they offer it with bread in a restaurant. YUK! Why would I want that taste in my cookies or pie crust? I’ve been baking for 45 years (at least) and have never had a texture issue with the substitution. But even if I don’t agree, this post was fun and informative. Thanks!

  15. Hey Sally,

    Thanks for the great info. about butter! I am laughing so hard over here because as I read the end, Matthew Perry came on the tv as a guest on Live with Kelly! Hahaha! Have a terrific day!

  16. Hey Sally! I love these posts. They’re genuinely helpful and interesting. A few additional things I’ve always wondered about is how to handle having more than one thing baking in the oven – for example, two sheets of cookies, or a casserole and a tray of roasted veggies in at the same time. Does this affect the heat distribution and/or cook time? Can it be done? I’m always a little weary of doing so, just in case, but it would definitely be a time saver if there are simple adjustments that can be made to make it possible.

    1. It does. And as annoying as it is, I usually only bake things one at a time– like cookies, brownies, or cupcakes. OR I put the 2nd item in when the 1st item is *almost* finished. I bake cake layers all at once on the same rack, though, rotating them during bake time. No issues there. For dinners, I usually bake casseroles 2 at a time. Though I find it takes longer. Make sure you’re rotating the pans too.

  17. Such an informative post, thank you! I love your Baking Basics series, each post has really helped me understand the chemistry behind baking.

    Tomorrow I am making your red velvet cake recipe, can’t wait to try it! I have already made several of your recipes and each one has come out perfect!

      1. It turned out phenomenal! I’ve made 2 different red velvet cake recipes before, but neither had the right flavor or soft texture. The flavors and texture of this cake are beyond perfect, so soft and moist!

  18. I never knew this. I always use unsalted just because I thought it was healthier. And I always use real butter. Usually when a recipe calls for softened butter I will just partially melt it in the oven first. I didn’t know temperature made a difference. Do you have a trick for getting butter softened quickly for a recipe? Do you leave your butter out and not refrigerate it? My daughter told me when she lived in Italy that they don’t refrigerate their butter or their eggs. Is it different than the US or just fresher?

    1. Butter will soften quicker if you cut it into smaller pieces. I cut the stick in half lengthwise and then half again. (Four long pieces) Then I cut them sideways to make tiny cubes (about 1/2 inch on each side). For a much small amount of butter (say to put on toast?) I will grab my flat grater!!!

    2. I actually do! I just wrote about my trick in this post: https://sallysbakingaddiction.com/2016/06/13/peanut-butter-skillet-cookie/

  19. Yay, baking basics rock! I love that you include science (like pH) in these posts. I always enjoy learning about how ingredients play a part in the recipe. Thanks Sally! 🙂

    1. It’s funny, I never enjoyed science in school. Maybe because it wasn’t about dessert. Rather, rocks and the periodic table.

  20. I was smiling as I read your article on salted vs unsalted butter. My mother grew up milking cows and making butter. She always told me to buy unsalted butter because it was the best quality of cream and the freshest used to make the unsalted butter. You can always add salt but can’t reduce if it is already in butter.

    I wish she was still here to read your article.

  21. What a helpful post! I personally love to use Earth Balance since it’s vegan and so much healthier than butter. Thanks so much for sharing!
    www.sprinklesandsaturdays.com

  22. I always buy unsalted butter (in packs of 4 pounds- at Costco) and freeze them.  I keep one in the fridge for baking and as it runs out, I transfer a pound to the fridge to thaw.  Is that ok or am I changing anything in the butter?  Also, I keep a good salted butter like Presidente in the fridge at all times, because it’s just better on toast and in eggs.  

    1. That’s perfectly fine. That’s exactly what I do as well! I’ve never had Presidente. I feel like I’m missing out!

  23. Excellent topic! I must admit, I always have a little argument with myself about whether to use salted or unsalted. If the recipe specifically calls for unsalted butter – no question – that is what I use. My problem is always with older recipes. Ones I use from my mother and grandmother. The ingredient list just states “butter”. And most of the time the recipe also calls for salt! Now what?! I usually opt for the salted butter and with one exception (chocolate chip cookies) everything has turned out just fine. Not too salty. I’d be curious what other people do with recipes that date back 60+ years.

    1. I usually use unsalted for older recipes like this. Then think about the recipe itself. Is it a sheet cake? Usually they take about 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Cupcake recipes yielding about 2 dozen, 3/4 – 1 tsp. This is not always, but typical. It’s tough with grandma’s recipes for sure.

  24. I usually use unsalted because that’s what I tend to have on hand, but I do enjoy a little extra salt!
    Kari
    www.sweetteasweetie.com

  25. The only butter I buy in blocks (i.e., for baking) is unsalted. If my recipe calls for salted I just add a little extra salt. For spreading on toast (and greasing cake pans) I buy spreadable salted. Because it has a little vegetable oil in it, the spreadable butter is also handy when you’re sauteeing something and you need butter-plus-oil to keep the butter from burning.

    I once saw a great quick tip for softening butter from Mary Berry (if you’ve seen The Great British Bake-off you’ll know who she is): measure out your butter straight from the fridge, and cut it into small dice (about 1cm). Put the diced butter into a bowl of water that’s hand-hot (she charmingly compared the right temperature to “about as hot as a baby’s bath”) for 10 minutes. Drain off the water and your butter is perfectly soft for creaming. If it’s good enough for Britain’s Queen of Baking it’s good enough for me!

  26. Thanks for the interesting post. I only use unsalted butter in all my baking recipes as I prefer to add the salt to  taste. I found the comment about water content and salted butter interesting. I have discovered that, in many cases, there is a difference in the water content of high quality butter versus generic brands. I first noticed this in a specific cookie recipe I frequently  make. I could not figure out why the finished product never seemed to be consistent until I asked a friend of mine who is a professional baker. She said that generic butter has a higher water content and will effect the finished product. From that point on, I have only used Land O’Lakes unsalted butter for all of my cookie recipes and never have a problem. I do use the less expensive/generic brands in other baked goods…muffins, cakes, bars and have no problems. For whatever reason, water content does not seem to make a noticeable difference.

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